BlackBerry PRIV Review: Android Marshmallow Update LANDS

Reviews Richard Goodwin 11:26, 3 May 2016

The BlackBerry PRIV is one of 2015’s most exciting releases. Here’s our review of BlackBerry’s FIRST Android handset

Rating: 
3.5
Typical Price: 
£559.00
Pros: 
Excellent Display; Great Design; AWESOME Specs; Decent Camera; No More App GAP!
Cons: 
Battery Performance Is Sketchy At Best; There Are Some Performance Gremlins; Keyboard Isn't As Good As Passport's Setup; No BlackBerry Blend
Verdict: 
The PRIV isn’t perfect, as noted throughout this review, but I have tried to be as diplomatic as possible, highlighting why certain things might not work quite as well as they should, commending its positives, and attempting to explain the presence of certain performance gremlins. This is a new beginning of sorts for BlackBerry and the true test of the PRIV is not sales or this first batch of reviews, but how it develops in the coming months once BlackBerry has some user data to work with and can update the software accordingly.

The BlackBerry Priv is the BlackBerry handset we never dared believe might happen. Sure, a few analysts had tentatively suggested BlackBerry could adopt another OS like Android, but we'd never taken it too seriously - the idea definitely had appeal, of course, as we've always loved BlackBerry hardware, but you know what smartphone manufacturers are like; they love their own software and they do tend to get quite entrenched. So extra kudos to BlackBerry for putting pragmatism before pride and taking a shrewd and accurate measurement of the smartphone market. This kind of change, a big upheavel, was arguably essential for BlackBerry to have even a chance of continued survival, so we're happy to see this level of innovation. There is life in the old dog yet!

Part of the reason BlackBerry adopted Android is to do with developers. Most have now migrated to either iOS and Android. This is where the money is. Developing for BlackBerry 10 or Windows Phone, for instance, isn’t likely to yield much of a return as the number of users simply isn’t big enough. Like all businesses, developers go where the users are and, by proxy, the potential for money is greatest. BlackBerry cannot adopt iOS and Windows 10 Mobile is in a similar position to BB10, so this just leaves one option: Android.

This has irked a lot of hardcore BlackBerry users, those loyal to BB10 — and there is a lot of them out there. But from a business perspective this move does make sense. BlackBerry doesn’t have anymore cards to play, so the move to Android, with a renewed focus on creating secure applications for the platform, is the best case scenario for the company as we move towards 2016. In this respect, the PRIV needs to be viewed as the start of a new direction for the company, one that could bring it from bit-player to major contender inside the next 12-18 months.

BlackBerry has now officially stated that it will be producing another Android-based phone in 2016, at least one, perhaps two, according to comments from CEO John Chen. Speaking to CNET at the CES 2016 conference in Las Vegas, Chen said the reception of the BlackBerry Priv had been very positive, enough to encourage the firm to not only create at least one or two new models for 2016, but also to focus its consumer-facing products on the Android operating system. Yes, that's right, there likely won't be any more BB10 handsets, at least not for you and I, according to the very same report BlackBerry has obtained a certification within the US that allows it to work with the US government and security services, as well as major corporations, using BB10.

It's not all good news though. Despite the feedback for the Priv being enough to make BlackBerry develop more Android devices, Chen also said that if the firm fails to turn a profit from its handset division in 2016 he will likely sell the company.

Anyway, back to the BlackBerry Priv. As of April 6, BlackBerry has officially reduced the price of the unlocked handset as bought directly from the firm's own webstore, down from an RRP of $699(US) to $649 - of course many retailers have been selling it a reduced price for many months now, but with the official RRP dropping it may become a bit cheaper in other places too. Still, $50 isn't a massive price drop, so we do wonder if it's enough to coerce anyone who may have been on the fence.

But should you be parting with your money? Does this tempting combination deliver the goods? We aim to answer that vital question...

Android Marshmallow Now Available For BlackBerry PRIV

BlackBerry has pushed out the Android Marshmallow update for the BlackBerry PRIV, and the update brings with it A LOT of new features and tweaks, as well as improved security.

Inside BlackBerry — the official BlackBerry blog — detailed what you can expect to find inside the new update aboard the PRIV, which goes a little something like this:

Security

  • Customized Personal Data Permissions – This gives you more control over what applications can access in your phone.
  • Clearer Notification Settings – A clear, concise break-down of what phone features downloaded applications want access to and why.
  • S/MIME Support – This lets you digitally sign and encrypt your emails, adding another level of security to your communications.

Enhanced BlackBerry Keyboard

  • More Emoji – 200 new and updated emojis.
  • New Keyboard Gestures – Swipe keyboard comes as standard, allowing you to drag your fingers over the keyboard to type messages.
  • Enhanced Word Prediction – Learns how you write on your phone for better text prediction
  • Better Cursor Control – Place the cursor on the screen by tapping a key on the physical keyboard.

More Battery Life & Storage

  • Doze – Improves battery life significantly through better power management when phone is not in use.
  • App Standby – If you don’t use an app that often its activity is restricted, which in turn also improves overall battery performance.
  • Media Card Encryption Support – This feature means that all your content is protected, should you PRIV get stolen.

Camera Updates

  • Capture Professional and Cinematic Quality Videos – Record videos at 24fps in 4k, 1080p or 720p for high-quality footage.
  • Slow-Motion Video – Capture video at 120 fps and play it back smoothly at 30 fps. The effect can also be applied to footage after capture, which is a nice feature.

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Design

I’d seen the leaks and read the reports and knew ALL about the specs and hardware before my briefing with BlackBerry. I had a pretty solid idea about what the PRIV would look and function like. At least I thought I did, but once I sat down and looked at the handset I realised it was VERY different looking in real life -- the pictures really do not do it justice.

The PRIV is bigger and has a lot more presence than I had anticipated. The first thing I noticed about the handset was its display; the curved QHD panel looks utterly stunning. The finish and gait of the handset is pure BlackBerry, with its traditional silver-on-black livery, but it also looks completely unlike anything the company has ever produced, sort of like the bastard child of the Galaxy S6 EDGE and the Passport.

BlackBerry’s never had any issues with creating premium, great-looking handsets, so I wasn’t surprised by just how attractive the PRIV was. It is definitely a lot more modern-looking than what came before and is obviously designed to pique the interest of your average iPhone or Samsung user -- basically, most people nowadays. But the PRIV is no clone. It has more than enough going on with its design to separate it from the pack and, no, I’m not just talking about its slide out QWERTY keyboard.

The PRIV has an odd and very intriguing profile. The display (and entire front of the chassis) is curved, sloping gently down to the sides, while the top and bottom, in direct contrast, are completely flat -- so much so you can stand the handset up on its end. And it is this contradiction in design language that makes the PRIV so interesting to behold -- it’s soft, yet hard; angular but also smooth.

The PRIV measures in at 147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm and weighs 192g. It’s robust in the hand and feels sturdy, but this was down for two reasons: 1) the PRIV is a large handset, so BlackBerry wanted to make sure it felt solid in the hand, and 2) BlackBerry wanted to fit a MASSIVE battery inside it and this obviously requires more space. I wouldn’t describe either of these things as concessions, though. I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for over a year now and if I could change one thing about the handset it would be to make it slightly thicker, as it does have a habit of slipping out of my hand at the most inopportune moments.

The PRIV features microSD-support, which can be found next door to the SIM-tray on the top of the handset. The Power/Unlock key is located on the left side of the handset, just over mid-way up. The volume rocker is on the right side in the same position. Both are easy to access but you can wake the handset simply by double-tapping on the display. Sadly, the battery is not removable. To access the QWERTY keyboard you simply slide the display up, an action that can be completed with one hand or both.

The back of the PRIV is constructed out of some kind of exotic, Kevlar-style material that is apparently used inside fancy planes and spaceships. The only thing that breaks up the flat, rubberised feel of the back panel is a silver BlackBerry logo and the porthole-style housing for the PRIV’s 18MP camera. All in all the outer chassis of the PRIV is basically just what you’d expect: professional, premium and very well put together.

BlackBerry Priv SIM-Free Shipments Delayed

There's been a slight hiccup at BlackBerry's end, apparently. According to a report from reputable Canadian news source MobileSyrup, BlackBerry has stated it has been "overwhelmed" by consumer interest. The firm has already begun shipping pre-ordered unlocked SIM-free handsets purchased directly from its own webstore, but that's specifically orders that have already been placed. Word is that demand has been so high it can't keep up just now. So BlackBerry has pushed back the shipping date for any orders made from now, specifically if you order a Priv right now it won't ship until November 23.

BlackBerry confirmed it would operate shipping in phases, with November 23 being phase two

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Keyboard

One of the BlackBerry PRIV’s bug USPs, depending on who you speak to, is its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. These things have been a staple of BlackBerry handsets since day one, but whether they’re relevant these days, particularly when you have a touchscreen keyboard as good as the one aboard the PRIV, remains to be seen.

Whether a physical keyboard is an actual demand these days remains to be seen; no one seems all that bothered about them when they’re buying iPhones or Samsung Galaxy handsets. But perhaps they do have a place in today’s market, for some users? I know I loved the one aboard the Passport, which looked great and performed even better.

This isn’t the Passport, though. It is the PRIV and it has more in common with a Galaxy S6 than it does with anything BlackBerry has previously released. For this reason, I kind of get the impression that the keyboard was stuck on because, well... that’s kind of what BlackBerry handsets are all about. Or used to be, anyway.

The PRIV’s isn’t great if I’m honest -- and I really do enjoy a good QWERTY keyboard on my phone. It lacks the tactility and precision of the Passport’s and, while it does have a few nifty tricks up its sleeve, you can use it to scroll through menus and the like, it just doesn’t live up to expectation. A nice addition to a very different-style of BlackBerry, yes, but something the phone could also have survived without, which brings me back to my original point: is BlackBerry’s obsession with keyboards built on nostalgia or actual consumer demands? After trying to use this one for two weeks, I have to admit, it sort of feels like the former…


BlackBerry PRIV Review: Display

BlackBerry has never been one for keeping up with the Jones’, but this year’s PRIV bucks that trend with its bleeding-edge specs, cutting edge design and awesome hardware. And nowhere is this more apparent than the PRIV’s utterly gorgeous, 5.4in curved QHD display which is by far and away one of the most impressive looking panels I have ever seen. But when you see its resolution (1440 x 2560 pixels; 540 ppi pixel density) this is kind of a given. Still, it’s nice to see BlackBerry matching the biggest and best players in the Android space.

Viewing angles are superb. Ditto for blacks and colour-fidelity in general. I really enjoyed the look and feel of the Galaxy S6 EDGE, despite the fact such screen technology is largely pointless, and it is much the same here, save for a handy battery-charging level which pops up when you plug the handset in to charge. Beyond this the curved display is essentially ALL ABOUT aesthetics. Nothing more, nothing less. But like the Galaxy S6 EDGE it really bloody works! The PRIV’s display looks simply amazing -- from all angles.

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Android Lollipop…

This is easily the most important aspect of the PRIV. BlackBerry adopting Android is HUGE. Not only because it is the first instance in the company’s history where it hasn’t used proprietary software, but also because it is arguably the only card the company has left to play before calling it quits for good as a handset maker. John Chen has even stated the company will exit the phone-making business if it doesn’t return to profit in 2016. So, yeah, the stakes are pretty HIGH.

Sensibly, BlackBerry has left Android’s UX well alone. Boot up the handset and what you’re presented with, after logging in, is essentially the same deal as you get aboard Nexus and Motorola handsets. And this is a very good thing, indeed -- Android no longer needs a custom skin layered over the top of it, despite what Samsung and HTC would have you believe. There are whiffs of BlackBerry smattered throughout, however, such as the Android version of the BlackBerry Hub, accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, as well as the traditional BB notification icons. Everything else, more or less, functions just as it does on normal Android handsets.

BlackBerry has made a few changes to the UX, but nothing drastic: the app tray is a down-scroller here, widgets and whatnot are accessed via swiping right and there is something called the BlackBerry Productivity Tab, which sits on the right hand side of the display and can be accessed from anywhere in the phone. Inside you’ll find your calendar, task list, BlackBerry Hub, and contacts list. It’s handy, but you need to get used to using it before it really comes into its own.

BlackBerry Reveals Android Marshmallow Update Plans For 2016

Well kind of. Yes folks, we've known for some time the BlackBerry Priv would launch with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop onboard, but we also knew that Marshmallow was coming - and of course it's now here as a more up-to-date build of the software. So does BlackBerry have plans to update the Priv after launch? In a word, yes.

It's not quite as straightforward as that though. BlackBerry president of devices Ron Louks has confirmed that the Priv will be updated to Marshmallow "sometimes in the new year", but hasn't narrowed it down. It's wide open at this point, but at least we know it's coming.

What's more, Louks also confirmed that going forward BlackBerry intends to keep pace with Google's release of subsequent patches, stating that the idea is to follow each Google rollout within 30 days. Good going, here's hoping the firm can stick to that!

BlackBerry LOVES security and prides itself on offering best in class solutions to its customers. Using Android created quite a few problems for the company in this regard, as it is no longer in complete control of the software running on its devices. Nevertheless, the engineers at BlackBerry took measures into their own hands, adding in a cryptographic key at hardware level, augmenting the Linux kernel and, if that wasn’t enough, they even included the Dtek security app which monitors what’s going on in your phone and reports anything nefarious.

Beyond this BlackBerry has promised a three-prong approach to Android security going forwards, which is detailed in full below:

Android Monthly Security Updates

Each month Google releases to BlackBerry and other Android OEMs a security bulletin containing a list of recently discovered Android vulnerabilities. Approximately one month later, Google exposes these in the public domain, so it is critical that BlackBerry release software in advance of public disclosure. BlackBerry will release these monthly updates to users that have purchased PRIV through shopblackberry.com and to PRIV resellers (carriers and other authorized dealers) that have agreed to participate in our regular monthly update program and facilitate rapid approval of our monthly updates for over-the-air (OTA) to subscribers.

Hotfix

Some critical Android vulnerabilities – for example, one that can be easily and remotely exploited with a publicly disclosed method to execute “root” privileged malware – simply can’t wait for a monthly update cycle. Depending on the severity of the problem, complexity of the fix, and timing relative to the monthly update cycle, BlackBerry will opt to perform a hotfix, where the code to address only the specific critical problem is pushed to customers. Because a hotfix is typically limited in scope, the balance between a longer testing and approval process and the risk from the critical flaw makes this approach an important addition to helping keep users safe and secure. While BlackBerry will work with its go-to-market partners on approval and delivery of hotfixes, BlackBerry has the ability to directly patch all PRIV variants and will do so when necessary to protect users and enterprises.

Enterprise-Managed Updates

Historically, IT has managed the delivery of OS updates to business PCs. By controlling when and to which devices and users that patches are delivered, IT can avoid expensive software incompatibilities and ensure that the security issues most important to the business are mitigated. In the mobile world, enterprises have lost this control. BlackBerry aims to bring back this control through BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and OTA management systems.

With respect to performance, the BlackBerry PRIV is an odd one. In most instances the software runs fine and is similar to what you’d experience on any top flight handset from Google, Samsung, HTC or LG. But every now and then it seems to fall over itself and is overcome with these horrible, spluttery fits where everything just stops working and the only way around this is a reboot. I don’t know if this was specific to my handset or something experienced by other reviewers, but it was certainly unexpected, given the specs and price of the PRIV, and it occurred often enough for me to make a mental note about it and include it in my review.

Perhaps these niggles can be ironed out with an update?

First BlackBerry Priv OTA Update & Monthly Security Patch Rolls Out

BlackBerry has released its first update to the BlackBerry PRIV’s Android software — and it’s quite a big one. Prior to release, BlackBerry said it was committed to making the PRIV and its Android software as secure as possible. This has been BlackBerry’s USP since day one and it isn’t about to start changing things now, even if it is using Google’s Android software.

Here’s what you can expect in the first release:

  • An improved camera: We’ve implemented a number of tweaks that improve the speed of our camera app, and re-tuned it for better low-light image quality.
  • Better performance: We’ve also tweaked the PRIV’s software to improve overall system performance
  • Improved stability: The update further includes a number of adjustments designed to improve device reliability and reduce instances of crashing and freezing.
  • Enhanced security: Lastly, the release includes December’s security patches – rest easy knowing your device is protected against the latest Android security threats.

BlackBerry will also update its Blackberry Keyboard, Blackberry Hub, Blackberry Camera, and DTEK by BlackBerry on December 14 with the following attributes:

  • Camera: Now supports 16:9 photos
  • Keyboard: Increased language support and emojis added to predictive typing
  • Hub & Contacts: Now includes WhatsApp
  • DTEK by BlackBerry: More notification options to alert you when apps use your info

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Specs, Hardware & Performance

Like Apple, BlackBerry has never been one for Keeping Up With The Jones’ when it comes to spec and hardware. Previous handsets have been decent, most notably the Passport, but most have settled for middling spec and hardware because, put simply, people used BlackBerry’s differently to how they use Android phones.

The PRIV bucks this trend in SPECTACULAR fashion. Looking like the Samsung Galaxy S6 EDGE and packing specs and hardware to rival it, the BlackBerry PRIV is the most powerful and feature-packed phone BlackBerry has ever released. Hell, it’s probably one of the best phones on market at present in this respect too. But as Apple likes to teach us once a year: specs and hardware aren’t everything.

Here are the BlackBerry PRIV’s specs in full:

Operating system Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 (8992) Hexa-Core, 64 bit
GPU Adreno 418, 600 MHz
Display 5.43-inch curved AMOLED, 2560x1440 resolution (540 ppi)
Memory 3GB low-power RAM
Storage 32GB Flash storage
MicroSD up to 2TB
Rear camera 18MP, f/2.2, OIS, phase-detect autofocus
Front camera 2MP, f/2.8, 1.75um pixel size
Battery 3,410 mAh, 4.4volt
Non-removable
Charging Quick Charge 2.0
Qi wireless (some models)
Size 147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm
184 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm (keyboard open)
Weight 192 g
Network FD-LTE: Band 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20, 29, 30
HSPA+: Band 1, 2, 4, 5/6, 8
Quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE
Connectivity Wifi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, USB 2.0

For the most part everything does tick along nicely but, as I mentioned above, there are some notable glitches (at least on my handset, anyway) when the PRIV simply becomes completely unworkable. I don’t know what causes this and I don’t know if it affects ALL handsets but I do know that when it happened the handset is basically unusable until you’ve switched it off and turned it back on again. The PRIV also features QuickCharge but for some reason mine did not work. Again, I have no idea if this is specific to my handset or not -- either way, it's a bit disappointing. 

This is the first time BlackBerry has used Android though, so I am more than willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Nailing software and getting it perfectly integrated with hardware is VERY difficult and it has taken the likes of Samsung and HTC years to get it 100% right. Everything else, beyond this, is very tight. The new BlackBerry Hub, while not quite as intuitive as it is inside BB10, is a welcome addition to the Android experience, giving you A LOT more control over your notifications than the traditional, slide-down menu.

At its core, though, the PRIV kind of feels just like any other Android handset. It does everything they do, with access to things like Google Now and Google Play, just with a few additional extras peppered ontop. Given time, and providing things like the Hub and Blend (sadly, not present here) are developed further, BlackBerry could really begin to carve a niche out for itself in the Android Kingdom.

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Camera

The 18MP sensor on the BlackBerry PRIV is EASILY the finest camera unit ever fitted to a BlackBerry handset. Images are crisp and detailed and there are plenty of settings and effects for augmenting shots both prior and after the fact. The rear setup, to be specific, is an 18MP Schneider-Kreuznach-certified imaging sensor. Think Carl Zeiss optics, like on old Nokia handsets, and you’re in the same ballpark of what this essentially means -- very good imaging but not quite as good as it sounds.

The PRIV will not replace your DSLR, like, at all, but it is perfect for what 99.9% of people’s require from a camera, meaning it is more than decent enough for uploading images to Facebook and Instagram. The UX is easy to use and there are plenty of nice filters to make your shots look more professional. Images for the most part are great, as you can see below. I have ZERO complaints in this regard.

The BlackBerry PRIV features optical image stabilization (OIS), phase-detect auto focus and the ability to record 4K video at 30fps. In this respect it matches and in some cases surpasses pretty much every currently available on market. So if imaging is something you look for in a handset, the PRIV’s setup should cause you no concern. It’s not the best by any stretch of the imagination but it is certainly closer to the top than most current players.

BlackBerry PRIV Review: Battery

The PRIV features an utterly MASSIVE 3,410 mAh battery inside its chassis and BlackBerry promised me a full day’s usage without worry. To date, the only handset I have ever used that actually managed to achieve this was Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus -- my current daily driver. Based on the size of the battery and BlackBerry’s expertise with software and optimisation, I had high hopes for the BlackBerry PRIV.

The reality is quite a bit different, though, unfortunately. During my two week test of the handset, the PRIV seldom made it through a full day -- 8am to 11pm -- without requiring a top-up at some point. Now, this real-world type of battery testing is entirely subjective to how I used the phone -- your experience might be different -- but I did notice the PRIV eats through charge at a rather alarming rate when you’re actually using it, something I’m assuming BlackBerry is very keen for you to do.

For instance, while checking emails and the like over coffee most mornings I was able to drain around 15%-20% off the battery in about 30 minutes. On my iPhone 6 Plus, for the sake of comparison, the same ritual took about ~5% of the handset’s charge. Again, this is something that can potentially be resolved with further optimisations to the software, every phone is different in how it manages power consumption, but this is something BlackBerry really needs to drill down on because the PRIV is VERY thirsty for power and this has a very negative effect, obviously, on its overall performance.

So what’s causing this? I’d argue the QHD panel. But it could just as easily be something else. Part of me wishes BlackBerry had used a 1080p display on the PRIV, too. I don’t think anyone would have minded. QHD panels are great when they don’t KILL battery life, but in this respect -- if, indeed, it is the culprit -- I’d take a few extra hours of actual usage over slightly crisper visuals EVERY day of the week.

BlackBerry Priv Review: Verdict

It’s very popular to bash BlackBerry these days. The once-great company has had a turbulent couple of years and, should things get worse, will exit the phone-making game altogether. Basically, in most people’s eyes BlackBerry can do no good. This was evident when it released BB10 and when it launched the Passport and it is evident now with the release of the BlackBerry PRIV.

The PRIV, because it runs Android, is seen by many as the company’s last ditch, fumbling attempt at making itself relevant once again. It is also a HUGE talking point for the mobile technology space, sort of like if Apple decided to release a Windows 10-powered iPhone. But this is all by the by. BlackBerry has pedigree and it has consistently shown this over the past few years with advancements to BB10, the release of BlackBerry Blend and, of course, the excellent BlackBerry Passport.

The PRIV isn’t perfect, as I’ve noted throughout this review, but I have tried to be as diplomatic as possible, highlighting why certain things might not work quite as well as they should, commending its positives, and attempting to explain the presence of certain performance gremlins. This is a new beginning of sorts for BlackBerry and the true test of the PRIV is not sales or this first batch of reviews, but how it develops in the coming months once BlackBerry has some user data to work with and can update the software accordingly.

I wanted the PRIV to be perfect; the best of both worlds -- Android and BlackBerry in one. The marriage isn’t a disaster, not by a long shot, and BlackBerry has made all the right decisions. The overall experience of the using the PRIV is just slightly hampered by a few performance bugs. Beyond this I have ZERO complaints, though I do admit the keyboard could have been A LOT better -- or just left off the device entirely.

Handset makers rarely hit the nail in the head first time around when releasing a new handset running new software. It takes time to finesse things and gain an understanding of the software’s nuances and finer points. For a first attempt, though, the PRIV is more than adequate as an Android device. I just don’t know if this will be enough for the majority of people.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I have now switched back to my iPhone 6 Plus. I need a phone that can consistently last all day with issue. Nevertheless, I will be keeping a close eye on BlackBerry’s software updates for the PRIV to see how things change in the coming weeks and months.

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